Hanoi, Vietnam

One of the dumber things I've done in my life occurred almost thirty years ago, the night a ping-pong ball with my birthdate on it popped out of a bin. To "celebrate" several buddies and I sort of rearranged the interior of a bar in downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan. As they assisted me into the back seat of one of those cars with the pulsating red lights, that old Country Joe and the Fish anthem echoed in my head, validating my actions. "I don't give a damn," I thought. "Next stop is Vietnam." Screw 'em.

I can't say that this memory found its way back to the front of my spongy matter at the exact moment I was preparing to take out the double twelve at the Spotted Cow Pub (23-C Hai Ba Trung) in Hanoi earlier tonight. That would be a flat out lie. What actually happened is that the memory returned at the instant I took out the double twelve. Okay, that would be crap too. I missed the @#$@!! shot. What is true is that my draft number was double twelve and I've just returned to my hotel room after a night of darts in the capitol city of the former North Vietnam -- something I could have never imagined I'd be doing the day that ping-pong ball said "Gotcha!".

What I can't help but do, at least against the backdrop of the times in which I have lived, is to reflect upon how unusual this experience has really been. Just an hour ago I was in the middle of a hell of a match, drinking beer and having a grand old time, with some guy named Quyuh. Not thirty years ago we could just as easily have been chasing each other with rifles through the slosh of a rice paddy. Tonight, when I finally got the better of this guy, he simply shook my hand, smiled and said "good game" and then -- in what I guess is some sort of local display of resignation -- smashed an empty beer can into his forehead. It all seemed so downright natural. Yep, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, "the times they have a changed."

The Hanoi International Darts League (HIDL) was formed in 1992 by members of the American and Australian embassy staffs. The league was established as a social organization for expats and Vietnamese in Hanoi who, due to work pressures or absence from loved ones, needed an outlet for stress. As Ben Puglisi, the current head of the HIDL, put it to me: "It is internationally recognized that throwing sharp objects around a room crowded with people is one of the best ways of doing so."

The league is comprised of nine, six-member teams. They shoot from seven different establishments in the small city. Consistent with the international nature of the league, the teams have named themselves with considerable patriotic flair. The Americans call themselves Uncle Sam's. The Filipinos call themselves Mabuhay (which means "cheers" in Tagalog). And the Swedish team, in a stroke of incredible creativity, calls itself: the Swedish Team. I was particularly intrigued by one other team, the only one of the nine captained by a female. Called the Pointy Bits, I hunted for hours and was disappointed to have been unable to find them.

In most of the sponsoring pubs (Green Cafe, Guoman Hotel, Verandah, Mekkis Pub, Baryo Fiesta, and the American Club -- in addition to the Spotted Cow) a beer runs about 15,000 Dong, which translates to 'round a dollar, sixty pence, 300 drachma or "mine is bigger than yours", depending on where you're from. Also, depending on where you are, on the menu you'll find everything from hamburger to dogburger. And that is the truth. Along the route into town from the airport I passed no less than a half dozen restaurants that specialize in man's best friend.

The format for league play is pretty basic. A match is decided on the basis of eleven points, the winner being that team which takes the majority, best two-out-of-three, of six games of singles (301), three games of doubles (501) and two games of triples (701). The lineups are determined by the captain. The first to throw for cork, similar -- though not quite the same -- as in most leagues, is determined by the toss of a hand grenade.

At the end of each season the winning team is awarded the Boddington Cup, a very special honor in that it not only recognizes their superior marksmanship but also pays tribute to the late Lord Boddington of Kent. As serious darts historians everywhere know, this once great Royal darter was accidentally wounded in his privates by a bounceout while chalking at the 1984 News of the World Tournament. Hence the invention of the Boddington Cup which is now worn by many of the great British darters. The losers, of course, each must take a ceremonial swig from the Boddington Cup and then smash an empty beer can into their forehead.

So there you have it -- a birds-eye view into the organization and unique customs of the only darts league in the former North Vietnam.

As the new millennium dawns and as we go about our routines in the changed times about which Dylan once reveled -- a world where danger is no longer imprinted on the side of a ping-pong ball and a simple game of darts can bring together a multitude of cultures 8,000 miles from our shores -- I am reminded of one last bit of musical wisdom from the turbulent 1960's. "Hear me now." began the soulful Johnnie Taylor, as he moved into his familiar rhythm. "All yo' fellas, gather 'round me -- let me give yo' some good advice. What I'm gonna, gonna tell you now, yo' better think about it twice. While yo' lyin', cheatin' on yo' woman, there's somthin' yo' never even thought of. Now hear me. Who's makin' love to yo' ole lady while yo' is out throwin' darts?"

Okay, maybe I've got a couple of words wrong. Still, after a week in this old war zone, I think it might be a good idea to pack up and head on home.

From the Field,

Dartoid

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